The very first chapter of Anne Helen Peterson’s new book, Can’t Even: How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation references “Old Economy Steve,” a reddit-born meme of the early 2010s that satirizes [can you call it satire when there’s no exaggeration?] Baby Boomers’ economic privilege. It mocks condescending financial advice based on an economy that no longer exists. The meme’s underlying point has become conventional wisdom among younger generations: Boomers, blissfully unaware of how easy they had it, are leaving their children and grandchildren to pick up the check.
Peterson’s much-shared 2019 Buzzfeed article put a spotlight on the ways work has changed since the post-war boom. For millennials in search of the elusive “cool” and “fulfilling” job, the line between on and off the clock has blurred. A work ethic of “hustle now, reap the rewards later” has lead to the rise of the side-hustle with no reward in sight.
The article helped put the language of “burnout” into the mainstream, giving millions of millennials a word to describe their unexpected exhaustion and paralysis.
At its core, though, the article was simply a rehash of those Boomer memes. Millennials have understood the ways the economy has screwed them for a long time; the article just puts their complaints into academic language.
Can’t Even does the same. This time, Peterson’s arguments about brunout are backed up with significant research and numerous interviews. Despite the length, however, the book adds little to the conversation.
Can’t Even is not a book about mental health.
Peterson’s description of the exhaustion and stress of burnout begs comparison to rising rates of depression and anxiety among young people. But the book never alludes to a wider discussion of mental health, despite describing burnout as what most would consider a mental health crisis.
Peterson lumps interviewee’s mental illnesses together with their workplace frustrations and relationship problems. She doesn’t distinguish between professional burnout and clinical depression, chalking all symptoms up to “the system” without allowing for other factors.
Can’t Even isn’t even about most Millennials.
More importantly, the book fails to sufficiently grapple with a persistent issue of generational study: the tendency to typify a given generation after the experience of its white and well-off members.
Peterson points out this issue early on. The term “millennial” is often invoked, she said, when identifying behaviors of the city-dwelling, middle-class, white cohort, that “kills” luxury industries and “delays” marriage and family. This, of course, doesn’t reflect reality.
Peterson promises to take a different approach. “Decentering the white middle-class millennial experience as the millennial experience is an ongoing and essential aspect of this project.”
Unfortunately, Peterson doesn’t make any moves towards decentering this experience. It is, after all, her experience, and the book is inspired by her own life. Can’t Even is organized around stories from Peterson’s [white, city-dwelling, post-graduate degreed, middle-class, childless] millennial life as a springboard for research. She literally centers her own experience.
There’s nothing wrong with writing about personal experience, but that will never allow Peterson to buck the white focus of millennial study. Frankly, she doesn’t even seem to try. There are some anecdotes supplied by millennials of color, but no meaningful intersectionality. Often, after laying out an aspect of life that’s become difficult for (presumed white) millennials, Peterson will tack on a halfhearted “of course, it’s worse for people of color” before moving on. Forget decentering— the book just barely remembers to acknowledge the existence of millennials who aren’t white, able-bodied, and relatively privileged. In fact, the book often struggles to see beyond the specific experiences of millennials with careers similar to Peterson’s. This narrow view was understandable in the original Buzzfeed article, but embarrassing in a full-length book.
Can’t Even is consistent about one thing it isn’t: a self-help book.
One of Peterson’s most interesting insight is that the barrage of personal improvement advice aimed at millennial is a symptom of the culture that leads to burnout in the first place. For the burnt-out, self-care is just another thing to fail at. Personal changes aren’t going to affect systemic issues.
This insight leaves things feeling rather hopeless, and does make me wonder about the point of this book. Peterson doesn’t seem to think that, armed with this knowledge, millennials might begin to make different choices in the majority of their life that remains, or that there’s any way she could address the causes of her own burnout. What was all this for?
Can’t Even is supposed to be about burnout among millennials. But it’s not about mental health. It’s not precisely about just millennials, and certainly not about most millennials. It’s not about possible solutions or ways forward. If millennials want to overcome their stereotype as directionless complainers, this book is a strange place to start.
I received an advance review copy of this title from the publisher in expectation of an honest review. No money changed hands for this review and all opinions are my own.